Google Android 4.4 builds on the success of Jelly Bean with KitKat, a powerful mobile operating system that makes up for its lack of candy coating with a solid framework. You can look forward to the always-listening Google Now, a new dialler that brings the power of search to your phone calls, and tons of tweaks under the hood that make this the slickest version of Android to date.
However, despite being fast and reliable, there's not much new for users to sink their teeth into with KitKat. Android owners waiting for a response to the bold redesign of Apple's iOS 7 will have to wait, because KitKat is pretty much status quo.
I've always been impressed with Android's setup process, which walks you through the core features of the OS while you enter your information. Once you've set up your phone with the appropriate language, Wi-Fi network, and so on, a series of transparent overlays point out useful features including Google Now and the improved Notification Tray. Apple, on the other hand, makes you guess at the new features.
Your phone doesn't require a Google account, but it can't do much without one. I was a bit annoyed that I had to log in twice, once in the OS and again on a Google web page, to access my two-factor secured account.
I expected that a device so closely tied to Google's services would handle security with a little more grace. It also bothered me that Android Device Manager – the powerful anti-theft tool – was not featured during the setup process. Users should know that the Device Manager is available, and they should be encouraged to make use of it.
That said, I did like the fact that the service was already fully activated on my KitKat phone, the Nexus 5, requiring no additional setup from me.
If you're coming from a Samsung phone, as I was, you'll probably notice that KitKat is a far sleeker and more subtle experience than you've seen before. It's also lightning-fast; the OS felt like it was positively leaping at me on the Nexus 5.
The colour scheme is the traditional grey and light blue, with some colours flipped from the previous version. The biggest aesthetic change is that Google has done away with the ever-present black bar across the top, letting the time and battery level hover above the wallpaper.
Google pioneered features like the notification tray, and Apple incorporated some into iOS 7. In KitKat, Google opted not to innovate but to refine. Swiping down from the top reveals an enhanced notification tray that shows alerts, and also lets you control some app functions like music playback in Play Music. Tablet users should note that there are slight differences with KitKat, particularly the fact that it retains the annoying twin pull-down menus – one for notifications and the other for settings.
The big features
With KitKat, Google has further expanded the role of its new Hangouts app. At first, it merely handled Google+ text and video chat, but it has since subsumed Google Talk, and now in 4.4, it swallows up SMS messaging as well. I actually found it quite convenient to handle all my chatting from a single interface – but it does push instant messaging towards an SMS model where everyone is available all the time. You can now set moods and availability messages, but you can never shut off Hangouts – only suppress its notifications.
Hangouts is also a great place for Google to debut its new emojis. These funny and bizarre images can be mixed in with text, but are special characters and not sticker-like images. You'll find a startlingly large array of faces, animals, and arcane symbols in here. Compared with Apple's emojis, I actually preferred Google's, which are bigger and more colourful. Best of all, the emoticons map to Apple's emoji keyboard, so anyone with an iPhone or Android will also see what you're trying to say. Many of the new features in Hangouts are available to all Android users who download the updated app, not just to KitKat users.
Google, which is determined to push NFC payments, has baked in support for key NFC actions to KitKat. Google is using its own open architecture for NFC payments so any KitKat phone, regardless of wireless carrier, can be used as a digital wallet in brick-and-mortar stores. I tested it with the Google Wallet app, but it apparently works with other NFC payment apps as well. The biggest challenge with NFC payments remains the rarity of stores equipped to handle them.
Even the humble calling app has been visually refreshed with an infusion of search data. For instance, Android will apparently search Google Maps for the phone numbers of unknown callers, in case any of them happen to be listed businesses. It also lets you search by text or voice; in testing the feature, I said "The Compleat Strategist," and it searched my contacts as well as the web to find the number of a nearby game shop. While nice, it's one more personal information setting to worry about. Adjust your Google Account settings online to prevent people from finding your Google Account by searching your phone number.
More connected than ever
Google Now first appeared in Jelly Bean, and over in the US the Moto X was the first phone that was always listening for the "OK Google" voice command, which activates Google Now. In Android 4.4, Google Now and the "always listening" voice search features are centre stage, and a remarkable and integral part of the KitKat experience.
At its most basic, Google Now returns Google search results using its amazing speech-to-text technology. I had no trouble searching for Korean food, even with my mouth full of Korean food. However, Google Now delivers its best content on special cards, like weather, stocks, and driving directions. For example, it was easy to check if it was raining and then get directions to my favourite comic book shop, without ever touching my phone.
While Google Now did a great job of transcribing my speech, I had to speak in specific operators, which didn't feel as natural as using Apple's Siri. "OK Google, directions from home to work" delivers a very useful map card, while "OK Google, get directions home" does nothing useful.
Also, Google Now dumps you into search results whenever it can't pull up a card, and this rather got on my nerves – I felt like I was being misunderstood. For example, both Siri and Google Now can create new alarms, but they can't edit existing ones. Ask Siri to cancel an alarm and she says she can't; ask Google Now, and you'll get search results for "cancel my alarm." Say what you will about Siri's fake personality, but she often explains the system's limitations rather than leaving you guessing. That said, both are much better than Windows Phone's Speech, which can call, text, open apps, and search the web, but little else.
Despite these annoyances, Google Now does quite well when stacked up against Apple's Siri. I prefer Google Now's graphical cards, and I really like how they remain available on the far-left pane of the home screen – unlike Siri which vanishes once you're done. Google Now is at its best when cards are available, though it also provides a great way to quickly pull information from the web.
If you love Android but you don't care for how Android looks, you can always replace the default launcher with something more to your taste (such as the popular Nova launcher). In KitKat, Google has reached out to these modders (and, perhaps, the providers who mask Google's work behind their own custom interfaces) with a new settings option to manage all your launchers.
KitKat has made it easier to change your phone's wallpaper, too, and even lets you reorganise whole pages of apps on your home screen. Just tap and hold the home screen. Also, the Swype-like gesture typing and predictive typing Google Keyboard is still standard on KitKat devices.
There’s also a new Immersive Mode that fills the screen with app content, pushing navigation bars out of sight. This last feature is best experienced in the Play Books app, where eBooks and magazines fill the entire screen for a great reading experience.
Under the hood
Most of the improvements in Android 4.4 won't be immediately obvious to users, but developers will surely appreciate them. For instance, Google's developer documentation crows that KitKat is more efficient than ever, requiring as little as 512MB of RAM to operate. This is a great move by Google, potentially opening up a world of lower-end smartphones in developing countries, and older devices that have languished with old versions of Android. But users on current-generation phones will probably only notice that Android feels crisper and more responsive.
Alongside this improvement in the efficiency of the OS, there are also more efficient tools for developers. Users probably won't notice that pedometer apps like Moves are using Android 4.4's step-counting tools instead of relying on their own, but they might notice a slight boost in battery life.
When it comes to apps, Google definitely has an impressive collection in Google Play, but they rarely feel as polished and well-made as iOS apps. Android also requires you to accept all permissions requested by an app when you download it, while iOS provides some finer grain controls.
I couldn't test all the features in Android 4.4 since some, such as the built-in support for IR blasters to change TV channels, weren't supported by my Nexus 5 or my Nexus 7. Other features, like closed captioning, didn't appear to be used by any apps I could find (not even Google apps). Still others, like active application sandboxes hardened with Security-Enhanced Linux and increased cryptographic capability, just aren't accessible to users. Oh well.
Android is smarter, leaner, faster, and more capable than ever – and though it currently lacks exciting new features, it's still a strong contender against that other mobile heavyweight: iOS 7.
However, iOS 7 distinguishes itself with a very powerful design language that governs everything from the visual appearance to how you're encouraged to interact with the device. Likewise, BlackBerry 10 has an emphasis on moving "forward" and a central communication hub, while Windows Phone 8 bet big with a bold tile interface. That's not to say that Android is broken, by any means, but it doesn't always feel logical or designed.
Instead of high-design, Android offers a clean frame for developers, carriers, and even users to build upon. Anyone can go onto Google Play and download themes to dramatically change the look and feel of their Android device. In fact, most people will probably experience Android 4.4 as seen through a custom interface from a hardware manufacturer or a network carrier (if at all). If you want Android 4.4, seek it out in its purest form on phones like the Nexus 5.
The mobile environment has been defined by the tension between the four main operating systems, but now more than ever it feels like the ball is in Google's court – it must make Android feel fresh and innovative. Android 4.4 is an excellent mobile operating system that outdoes its predecessor, but it feels more status quo than forward-thinking when compared to the competition.
Windows Phone 8 is a bold statement about usability and what it means to be mobile, but its weak app store and slow adoption rate make it a dark horse. BlackBerry 10 suffers from its association with itself. iOS helped define what a mobile operating system should be, and its seventh version balances great user experience with strict design. Backed by an excellent App Store and a modernised new look, iOS 7 remains our favourite mobile operating system.
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